Russian President Vladimir Putin began talks with Syrian leader Bashar Assad in Moscow on Wednesday as the Kremlin steps up efforts to restore ties between Turkey and Syria.
Putin said he planned to discuss “all important aspects of cooperation” with Assad, who thanked the Russian leader for backing Syrian demands for the pullout of all foreign forces and expressed support for his invasion of Ukraine.
The Russian capital on the same day was also due to host four-way talks involving Turkey, Syria and Iran. The diplomatic activity comes days after top U.S. military officials visited American troops and their Kurdish allies in northeastern Syria, where Washington has kept a presence for almost eight years.
The diplomatic push, opposed by the U.S., is part of broader efforts by Moscow and Beijing to challenge Washington in the Middle East. It comes after China brokered a diplomatic detente between Iran and U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, demonstrating its new-found weight in the region. The U.S. has about 900 troops in Syria, a presence that Moscow and Damascus have long sought to end.
“The U.S. reputation in the region would be undermined even more if the Americans try to impede regional efforts to stabilize Syria and push the Kurdish agenda,” said Nikolay Surkov, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations. “Other regional states are likely to follow the example of Turkey.”
The inclusion of Iran in the talks at the level of deputy foreign minister came after Turkey indicated it didn’t oppose Tehran’s participation. The two-day meeting Wednesday and Thursday is intended to prepare the ground for consultations between the four countries’ top diplomats, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a reelection battle in May elections, has said he’s willing to sit down with Assad to promote peace in the region.
A major sticking point so far remains the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria and Ankara’s support for Syrian armed groups.
The rapprochement between Syria and Turkey, which has supported rebels fighting Assad in a war that started in 2011, has been pushed for by Damascus’s major military backer Russia and the United Arab Emirates. Syria remains under strict Western sanctions and is suspended from the Arab League, making it dependent on Iran, which also sent fighters to back Assad in the conflict.
Iran’s top national security adviser, Ali Shamkhani, will visit the UAE on Thursday, a week after the China-mediated deal with Saudi Arabia to restore ties.